Report on the 2010 Washington State Democratic Convention

by Don Smith

On the weekend of June 25 I attended the Washington State Democratic Convention, in Vancouver, WA. Here's a report of some of what I observed and learned.

McDermott on Obama

I spoke for several minutes with Representative Jim McDermott, who looks like a Hollywood version of a distinguished US Senator.

I asked McDermott if he has any sense for why President Obama has been so centrist. I mentioned health care, war, and the bailouts as areas where Obama has been a disappointment. McDermott said, "Oh, one could list other areas as well." McDermott said that Obama probably should have chosen a progressive economist like Paul Krugman as an economic adviser. McDermott said he asked Rahm Emanuel about Obama's centrism. McDermott thinks that Obama is by nature extremely careful and methodical, and he is less ideological than most politicians. I said that it surprises me that a black former community organizer, who is smart and who obviously knows about injustice, could be so conservative. McDermott said that often when you elect a politician you don't know what you're getting. People saw in Obama what they were hoping to see. McDermott said that he had supported Hillary over Obama in the primaries. "Obama's policies are --," and here McDermott moved his hands in a wavy fashion, to indicate, I think, that Obama's policies are inconsistent or changeable.

McDermott said that he heard that Obama and his advisers were badly scared by the loss of the Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to a Tea Party candidate, Scott Brown. Others have claimed that the loss is due to the weak campaign run by Brown's Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, and that one can't blame Obama for the loss. But this New York Times article and common sense suggest otherwise: Obama is at least partly to blame, since Obama's policies have allowed populist critics on the right to portray Democrats as the servants of Wall Street, the military, and the corporatocracy.

McDermott predicts that the Dems will lose 10 or 12 seats in November's election, though he doubts that the Republicans will win a majority. He said that bad losses in November may be what it takes to turn Obama around. I suggested that, to the contrary, it make push Obama further to the right. McDermott nodded and said that that's possible.

I heard McDermott speak in person before a couple of times, including his speech at a single-payer health care colloquium in Seattle. I am impressed by his intelligence, humility, humor and humanity. At the single-payer meeting he expressed considerable sympathy with single-payer but said that it ain't gonna happen. McDermott came under considerable criticism by the single-payer advocates, and it took guts for him to attend.

Progressives versus centrists

Friday afternoon I attended the progressive caucus meeting, chaired by Judith Shattuck. The room was pretty packed, which both surprised and pleased me. The meeting lasted but an hour.

Brian Gunn of the 31st Legislative District spoke on the Road Kill Caucus of centrist Democrats, about whom I have written previously. (See Centrists and Progressives Fight for Control of Washington State Democrats.) Gunn said that many of the Road Killers actively work with Republicans to kill progressive legislation. One of them, Christ Hurst, runs as an "Independent Dem" -- the point being that "Independent" is spelled out and "Dem" is abbreviated.

Separately, Brad Larsen of the 45th LD said that Road Kill members such as Larry Springer, Deb Eddy, and Judy Clibborn, accept BIAW money and vote to kill pro-labor bills in the legislature.

By the way, the name "Road Kill" comes from "middle of the road": they're attacked by both the left and the right.

Ross Hunter is a allegedly member of the Road Kill Caucus, according to this article published by the Washington Federation of State Employees. (The Road Kill Caucus has a facebook page, which lists their photos, and Hunter is not listed there. I am fact-checking this.) Yet he got a 100% rating from Washington Conservation Voters. And most Road Killers are progressive on social issues and education. So, people aren't monolithic in their political views. They're mixed.

Several candidates spoke at the meeting. One of them, Bob Burr, is running for US Senate against incumbent Senator Patty Murray. Burr's website says he's running "against corporate corruption of Congress." In defense of his candidacy, Burr mentioned that Murray failed to sign on to support the Fair Elections Now bill. According to his website,

"Patty was a good Senator before she became so entrenched in the system." Burr has pledged to serve only one term. Not only will he not accept PAC money, he will accept absolutely no money from any source. "I will waste no effort raising funds and will owe no favors, concessions or tax breaks to anyone."

This may be unrealistic and extreme. Burr has no experience in an elected office. He was vice-chair of his legislative district Democratic organization, and he is on the State Democratic Platform Committee. He came to the caucus meeting wearing a tee-shirt.

Still, the caucus voted to endorse Burr over Murray. I'm not sure, but I think the vote was close.

Burr had no chance of beating Murray in the primary, and this truth was openly acknowledged at the caucus meeting. The progressives just wanted to make a point.

Patty Murray

There was a massive showing of support for Murray at the convention: most of the speakers spoke highly of her, and she brought an entourage of colorful, cheering mostly young people, who held signs, cheered before she appeared on stage, and stood behind her during her speech.

During the Saturday morning vote to approve the nomination of Murray for US Senate, only a couple of delegates voted "Nay."

Murray is not as progressive as, say, Maria Cantwell, who was has taken a lead in pushing for financial reform and was selected by The Nation earlier this year as the most effective (progressive) senator. But Murray courageously and presciently voted in 2002 to opposed invasion of Iraq. She said:

Mr. President, if we do take action in Iraq, there is no doubt that our armed forces will prevail. We will win a war with Iraq decisively, and, God willing, we will win it quickly. But what happens after the war? That will have as big an impact on our future peace and security. Will we be obligated to rebuild Iraq? If so, how? Our economy is reeling, our budget is in deficit, and we have no estimate of the cost of rebuilding. And with whom? As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman points out, there's a retail store mentality that suggests to some -- if "you break it, you buy it."

Murray recently voted to mandate a nonbinding timetable to end US deployment in Afghanistan. (See this article.)

That's My Congress rates Murray as a weak progressive. According to, Murray has been rated as more liberal than Maria Cantwell or Bernie Sanders -- which seems inaccurate. News Max says that the National Journal rated Murray as the most liberal senator. but Publicola makes a convincing case that the National Journal can't be trusted, since that's the same publication that said that Obama was the most liberal senator in 2008.

It's been a truism among progressives that Murray has been too centrist. Maybe so. On what issues?

Hospitality Suites

Friday night from 9:00 PM til past midnight, there were "hospitality suites" hosted by various candidates and groups. These were held in hotel suites and involved food, booze, and loud music. As the evening wore on, and people became drunker, the parties became noisier. Two guys from hotel security came to one such party and demanded that the participants quiet down or they'll have to shut down the party. One benefit of these parties was that I was able to learn useful information.

I spoke with Gregory Scott Hoover, who is running for State Representative in the 5th Legislative District, which encompasses North Bend, Snoqualmie, Issaquah, and portions of unincorporated King County. His endorsements include the King County Democrats, 5th Legislative District Democrats, Metropolitan Democratic Club of Seattle, and 41st LD progressive State Senator Randy Gordon.

The issues section of his website suggests that Hoover supports environmentalism, education funding, a State Bank modeled after North Dakota's highly successful and well-established State Bank, and green energy programs. Yet Hoover told me he's in favor of second amendment rights. Apparently, his district is very conservative, and he would never get elected if he were too liberal. I asked him what he thought of the Road Kill Caucus, and he said, "They got it right, man." They had advised him on how to run. Due to the Tea Party influence and the rebellion against Obama, voters are moving to the right, he said, and the Road Killers suggested that Hoover do so too.

Progressives are upset about centrist Dems, but it's a fact that in conservative districts -- and there are many such districts -- a liberal Dem would get slaughtered in the polls. Those darn voters....

Hoover has a degree in taxation from the University of Washington and suggests that the legislature consult with the tax specialists at UW. Hoover isn't impressed with I-1098, which will establish an income tax for Washington State. (Washington has one of the most regressive tax systems in the country.) He said it was too short: only 18 pages. I asked, "Isn't shorter better? Shorter means simpler and fewer loopholes." He suggested taxing dividends and wages above a cutoff, not income. His website says:

Where initiative 1098 is a good message that we need to change our tax system in Washington state, 1098 lacks substance to cover all issues of a new tax code that our state desperately needs. Our current system is regressive, unfair with too many special favors, and is not stable enough for long term revenue goals of the state of Washington.

He opined that I-1098 won't pass; Washingtonians are committed to no income tax.

I'm curious to learn more about Hoover's stance on taxation. He is a specialist in it, after all.

I chatted with Susan DelBene at her campaign's hospitality suite. She's running for US Congress in the 8th Congressional District. Her Republican opponent, Dave Reichert, twice defeated Democrat Darcy Burner in closely fought races. This year Reichert seems more vulnerable, since he made a huge gaffe. In an unguarded moment he admitted within earshot of a reporter that his Yes votes for environmental proposals don't reflect any inherent support for environmental issues. Rather he voted for environmental bills only to get re-elected.

Furthermore, DelBene seems sharp and confident: she was a VP at Microsoft, and she started several successful businesses, including When talking with Darcy Burner, I often got the impression that she was trying hard; DelBene seems more authentic and confident. Her minuses include the fact that, like Burner, she has held no public office; also, DelBene didn't vote in several elections. Her opponent will no doubt try to capitalize on that.

I asked Dwight Pelz, Party Chair of the Washington State Democrats, why Republicans seem to be so much better at working together than Democrats. At first Pelz said that the Republicans and Democrats are the same: humans often disagree and squabble. When I pointed out that Republicans vote together in blocs and that they're better at coming up with and marketing their talking points, Pelz gave some ground: "OK, the Republicans are 5% better at working together." After thinking about it for a moment, he went on: "The Democrats actually try to accomplish something, and that means they disagree about how to do it. The Republicans just want to prevent government from working, and that's easier to agree upon." It was a good line and I think it contains a considerable amount of truth.

A Korean American former mayor of Shoreline, Cindy Ruy discussed her conflicts with a conservative Democrat on the Shoreline City Council. Cindy said that Vietnamese and Korean Americans often tend to vote Republican, since they think that the Republicans will be more likely to oppose the Communism from which many of them fled. She said that it takes work to convince them that the Democrats will better server their interests.

Meeting with a sitting State Supreme Court Justice and two Supreme Court candidates

At one point, an elderly, distinguished looking gentleman wearing a business suit came into one of the hospitality suite parties.

On his lapel was a tag saying "Richard B. Sanders, Washington State Supreme Court Justice." This was obviously for real, and it almost made me burst out laughing. An image popped into my head of God appearing on earth wearing a badge "God, King of the Universe."

I mentioned my surprise to him: "Wow, I'm surprised that you advertise on your chest the fact that you're a Supreme Court Justice."

He replied, "Well, I have to run for office to get re-elected."

Later in the evening, at a different party, I met two slightly younger, but still distinguished-looking, gentleman. I asked why they were there, since they seemed official. They said that they're running for the state Supreme Court but that they weren't running against one another. (There's more than one position.) One of them handed me a flier and said he's running against Richard Sanders. The flier contains documentation about alleged judicial misconduct by Judge Sanders. The documentation is quite convincing, and I found the document online.

The document alleges that Sanders has ties to the conservative Building Industry Association of Washington, which is much hated by progressives and unions for its campaign contributions and lobbying. They tried to buy Supreme Court Justices in 2008 but were unsuccessful.

I also found WA Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders Authors Significant Gun Rights Ruling. It says, "The Washington State Supreme Court has issued a precedent-setting opinion in the case of State v. Christopher William Sieyes which holds that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitutionís Bill of Rights applies to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment."

I told Wiggins (the author of the document) and the other Supreme Court candidate that I thought that it would be better if judges were appointed by the governor and shielded from the political and fund-raising complications of running for office. They didn't seem to agree -- I guess they're glad for the chance to challenge Sanders -- though they mentioned that in California judges are appointed by the governor to twelve year terms, as it says here; that seems like a good compromise: not for life, but still stable and above the fray.

My last exchange about the Supreme Court was about pay. I said, "I bet you'd have to take a pay cut to become a Supreme Court Justice." One said, "Yes, and I have kids to send to college, but you don't become a justice to make money."

Paul Richmond's Perspective on Sanders

Attorney Paul Richmond (a progressive) posted a Facebook comment critical of the WA Dem's decision not to nominate Sanders to the Supreme Court. I showed him the information above and here's what he wrote in defense of Sanders:

Wiggins has run a campaign of ad hominen attacks and every time Sanders has been given the opportunity, I've seen him respond to every one of these allegations.

If you look at the cover of Washington Law and Politics you will see a cover article on the states greatest living civil rights lawyer, Lem Howell.

Howell is also heading Sanders campaign. What does that tell you?

Sanders has been the strongest consistent advocate for civil rights on the court.

Recently in the Fry decision, 4 of 9 of the WA Supreme Court Justices said that if a patient had medical marijuana authorization it was okay for the police to come into their house upon smelling the marijuana, seize it all, charge the person criminally and the most the person could do was offer their authorization as a defense at trial. 4 of the other justices found against this on a technicality. Sanders alone said, no this is wrong.

Wiggins by contrast attacks these very sort of decisions. This is why he is so favored by the prosecutors. Put him in place and we will likely have the 5th vote on this and many others.

From a civil liberties perspective, a disaster.

I welcome more information and opinion on Sanders and his opponents.


Compared to the Hospitality Suite parties, the formal speeches were pretty dull.

I heard speeches by US Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), US Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), US Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA), Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA), US Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), and Washington State Governor Christing Gregoire. The speeches were almost without exception smart, forceful, and inspiring. They touched on the correct, populist, progressive talking points: regulating Wall Street, making BP pay, the evils of Bush and the Republicans, the evils of the insurance companies, banning drilling off the Pacific coast, extending unemployment benefits, minimum wage, and a woman's right to choose. Hearing the speeches, one is apt to think, Hey, the Dems are great, they have our best interests at heart. Perhaps most of them do.

In her spech at the banquet, Governor Gregoire said that a 2 cent tax on a can of pop is worth it in exchange for health care for the poor. And 28 cents for a pack of beer is worth it so that a three year old can go to preschool. Yes, but far better would be to eliminate tax exemptions for out-of-state banks, for TransAlta Power and for private aircraft.

In Senator Wyden's speech at the convention banquet, he claimed that China is highly protectionist towards software. The US needs a smart trade policy to stimulate exports. We need real green energy. Windmills don't make toxic spills. America, not Asia, should lead in green technology. We also need to eliminate tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas.

Wyden thinks the financial reform bill is a good start. In contrast, Thom Hartmann thinks it's another giveaway to powerful corporations.

Wyden said that he went to conservative Eastern Oregon and said at a townhall meeting, "If you don't like gay marriage, don't get one."

Wyden said that some people think Democrats will sit out this election, in frustration at the slow pace of reform. But Wyden thinks the voters should realize that even Obama can't solve all problems in 15 minutes.

According to Wikipedia's article, Wyden has been liberal on tax policy (he opposed the Bush tax cuts and the bank bailouts but he wants to eliminate the estate tax, for example); liberal on environmental issues; and mixed on health care (he supported Bush's Medicare Prescription Drug Act). He voted against authorizing the use of military force in Iraq.

Final thoughts

The WA State Constitution sucks, in some ways. It requires that all taxes be flat (non-progressive), that all gas tax money be spent on roads (not on, say, public transportation), and that the state government not extend credit. (Hence, it may be difficult to establish a State Bank, as in North Dakota, though perhaps the state can partner with local banks and escape Wall Street fees and corruption). It seems like the Washington State Constitution was written for special interests.

There's a perennial heated debate on the (further) left about whether to support the Democrats (which they consider the lesser of two evils) or whether, on the other hand, to vote for a third-party candidate or just not show up at the polls. Obama seems to be a particularly conservative Democrat, and I'm not sure that it's fair to compare Gore or Kerry to Obama.

My insight, from attending the convention and hearing the candidates, is that the Democrats are mixed, both individually and as a group. On most issues most Democrats are significantly better than the Republicans. But some Democrats are progressive on some issues and conservative on others -- especially Democrats from conservative areas. And due to campaign spending, too many Democrats compromise. (Heck, they're human, and the system is broken.) The problem is that the numbers just aren't there to pass progressive legislation. You can blame the politicians (especially the Republicans!), you can blame the press, you can blame Obama, you can blame the system, you can blame human greed, and you can blame the often stupid (or at least gullible) voters -- who sorely need to be educated about the ways in which conservative policies harm them and the nation.

The left needs to build a viable progressive media.

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